Back in the decade we lived in Chile’s Chiloé Islands, a hippie sort of bookshop lay tucked between our favorite restaurant, El Sacho, and the Castro Hostería where we’ve just spent the night. The place was called Light Years, and this morning as I wake up, I still feel light years out of my comfort zone here.
Light Years’s windows were crammed not only with books on subjects ranging from metaphysics to local lore, but also boasted crystals, pyramids, incense, and anything else left over from the Chilean Age of Aquarius. Despite the (perhaps superficial?) changes we’ve observed here, I wonder, as I often used to, if real transformation still crawls light years in the distance.
“A fear of the unknown must not set boundaries for our lives. An overweening desire for comfort must not inhibit our appetites for danger.” –Eugene Peterson, This Hallelujah Banquet
It’s Day 4 of our Return to Chiloé anniversary trip, and today, a Monday this year, is the actual date. As you may remember, we aren’t particularly thrilled with this rundown ex-VIP hotel we’re staying in. BUT we rise to the occasion, determined to make everything special even if some of it’s out of our comfort zone.
For some reason I can’t quite identify, the dining room feels homey this morning as we have our breakfast. Maybe it’s the comforting crackle and the woodsy smoke from the open fireplace with its hammered iron hood. Or the aroma of fresh rolls and coffee, the pots of yogurt and dishes of blackberry jam. It could even be the call from family in Santiago that we enjoy as we linger over another café con leche.
Possibly we hang out longer at the table because one of the most spectacular scenes of the trip spreads out before our dewy window. We’ve only ever visited this restaurant after dark, and how much we missed! Gigantic Araucanian pines (AKA monkey puzzles) frame the ice-blue finger of the Fiord of Castro in feathery-ink relief. White cotton puffs dot the sky. A rainbow of roofs tumbles toward the inlet waters. So we make new memories.
A cruise ship—the Skorpios, maybe—has docked in the port below, and a gaggle of seniors is herded into the Hostería for brunch just now. We’re glad to slip away as the dining room clogs up. The tourist guidebook needs updating, we think, or somebody has clout …since Castro offers far more interesting places to visit. They’ll appreciate the view here, at least, and it gives us a smile to realize we’re not the only ones out of our comfort zone today.
Rainy Days and Mondays
Almost as soon as we drive out of the hotel parking lot, the morning fog condenses into drizzle and envelops us. We wander around the town, revisiting old haunts and recounting tales of long-ago problems and pleasures. The weather only gets disconcertingly worse. Soon it’s raining cats and dogs, as it can only do in Chiloé.
After living in Santiago for so many years, we’ve all but lost our skills for dealing day after day with rain, rain, rain. Maybe we’ve forgotten we won’t melt, because we’re content to stay cozy in the comfort zone of our rental car, even though we end up peering at everything through a screen of steam.
“Honestly, Your Highness, where’s your sense of adventure?” –Danielle in Ever After
That much confessed, we’re not dampened in the least. Our joy in the journey of exploration hasn’t faded with the sun. We circle the plaza several times just to take another look at the towering cathedral decorated in birthday-cake colors. We discover an alluring restaurant called El Pomodoro…Italian, in Chiloé? (Out of some Chilotes’ comfort zone, for sure.)
And we park longingly in front of the closed gates of the fairgrounds for the traditional Customs Festival. Sigh, we need to return in the summer.
Moving on back downhill, we pass the provincial hospital, once so small even though it’s the main medical facility for the archipelago. It has grown to occupy several blocks. We sweep around twice, gawking through a soup of car exhaust and rain. I imagine all my story characters gathered here at the climax of The Sea-Silk Banner (Book 3 of First Mate’s Log).
I ask my husband to head to the port area at the foot of Blanco Street. Here the Maritime Government building, the island base of the Chilean Armada, depresses me, almost stings with its cold shoulder. Not sure why, since I never expected grand. Is it the blackened shingles, the leaden fiord and steely-stern atmosphere, or maybe the renewed downpour that thrust me out of my comfort zone now?
“Comfort zones are where adventures go to die.” –Mitchell A. Glass
With regret, I decide I may stick with my hazier memories for this story setting. In The Seahorse Patrol (Book 1), the imagination conjures the magic of the naval receptions, vivid and powerful, from a mere scrap of canvas and a glint of brass. Part of transforming our ordinary world, right?
On spur of the moment…
…we wind into the nearby souvenir market. Bypassing the outdoor stalls, we find the damp chill has penetrated the interior too, with all the doorways open. I look for ceramics or tins for my collections 😊, but that’s not Chiloé. The place is packed and stacked with wool items—sweaters, hats, ponchos, and blankets—and smells of sheep and woods and fried sopaipilla biscuits.
So I settle for a handknit hen for my kitchen shelf and a little knit doll magnet for the fridge. For my daughters, magnets made of cedar sticks and sand in the shape of palafitos (shacks on stilts). Nothing sophisticated, but they will remind the girls of the comfort zone of home. I wish I could locate a carved-apple doll like I once saw at a museum shop and featured in The Seahorse Patrol. For some things, you have to launch out to the right place at the right time, I guess.
Which is exactly what I realize as we approach the doors of Restaurant El Sacho for our customary anniversary lunch.
It’s closed! And then we remember, it’s always closed on Mondays; Sundays are their big day. What a bitter disappointment for us. But we’re not discouraged yet, just nudged unexpectedly out of our comfort zone. My husband encourages me with the idea of discovering a new spot to celebrate, though he’s less keen on spaghetti than I am!
“Marry someone who is a home and an adventure all at once.” –Anonymous
Another place we check out along the waterfront is also closed for the season. Once again, we trundle past the unwelcoming naval headquarters…and notice a sort of combination palafito and fogón—a roofed, and in this case, enclosed firepit-style building. A gazebo on stilts over the water.
Immediately we hustle through the drenching shower into Restaurant Octavio. It’s rustic but big, with soaring wood ceilings and plenty of tables. And warm. We cuddle up near the Bosca, a “slow-combustion” stove presently roaring at top speed.
So our original frustration becomes a memorable fiesta along the Chilote seaside. Out of the comfort zone…to open new doors, admire different sights, embrace a change of menu. Ahem, well, I try exquisite crepes of crab Florentine. My husband steps out of the steak-eggs-and-onions box with round chips instead of fries 😊. The waitress equals our friends at El Sacho for cheerful attention.
“The further you get away from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is great fun.” ―Benedict Cumberbatch
Octavio interrupts our careful plans for the day, breaks our familiar routine. We throw our comfort zone away as we head south out of town toward our next destination. But we’ll stop wherever we feel curiosity or inspiration. It’s the best road to growth, after all.
Our first unscheduled stop is Chonchi. We spent Saturday night just outside of this town, without seeing it. You may remember I folded Chonchi into Rilán to come up with the island village of Trilán for my First Mate’s Log series. Chonchi’s a charmingly shabby town built on three levels, reminding me a bit of the country’s major port of Valparaíso. So much potential gone to seed that I think about sending the character Valeria Serrano in to renovate this historic gem.
Suddenly we recall the old woman from Chonchi who used to squat halfway down Blanco in Castro, selling plastic bags of roscas. In most of Chile, roscas are a version of donuts, but Chonchi roscas are donut-shaped semi-edibles drier than sawdust and more tasteless than soda crackers. At least, to my husband and me. Our kids gobbled them up, perhaps because that was their only snack during a busy morning of errands.
Now we duck through the drippy doors into the town market to buy some roscas for the girls back home. Because this unique treat hails only from Chonchi. Like licor de oro, as we’re reminded while inside the market surrounded by golden bottles of every imaginable size. “Gold liqueur” may be flavored with saffron and lemon peel, but it’s made of curdled milk. And it may get showcased in Turistel guides and TV documentaries too, but I’ve never seen real Chilotes actually drink the stuff 😊.
Back on the highway…
…we turn off toward the west coast of Grand Chiloé, gliding along what’s now a “comfort zone.” The newly paved road to Cucao National Park hardly holds a memory of the pot-holed wilderness track of our first drive out here many years ago.
But a misty jungle of thick green highlands still hedges the road, with the addition of scattered houses sporting satellite dishes and late-model vehicles parked in the driveways.
We wind along the fog-banked shores of the Twin Lakes and come to what used to be the hamlet of Huillinco, nestled near the narrow strait between the lakes. This former widening of the road, strung with a few humble homes, figures in The Seagull Operation (First Mate’s Log, Book 2) as the crossfire setting of a civil war.
The character Melissa Travis, now a young adult, muses as she works in a makeshift field hospital, light years from her comfort zone:
“Could I ever…fit into this strange world? Would love be enough when the initial exhilaration waned, when the rockets and sparklers fizzled? When life in Chiloé was just hard and routine and routinely hard? Maybe I should stick to the safe and familiar, the comfortable and—well, if not easy—at least, possible. I wasn’t like (others). I couldn’t save the world if I tried.” –Diana Delacruz, The Seagull Operation
You can’t help everybody. So often, I fret over these same doubts. And answer myself as Melissa’s sister Linda does: “No, you can’t. But it makes a very big difference to the few you do help.”
Something—someone—has made a difference here in Huillinco…
…because it’s become a proper village rather than an overgrown intersection. I’m impressed by the transformation that’s taken place. Despite the curtains of rain, it feels so much bigger and brighter than before. I take lots of pictures of the medical posta, the two-story school, the firefighters’ station.
Not much farther down the road lies Cucao, which also plays a part in First Mate’s Log (a story for another day). Cucao used to be the larger community, but today it strikes me as little different from Huillinco. In a wooly white wrap of low-brushing cloud, we bump along the muddy paths that pass for streets, find the tiny school, the church, a few shops, and then cross the imposing suspension bridge.
A river, the outlet from the lake, runs through a sort of marshy delta to the Pacific. This Chilote version of the Golden Gate Bridge sways over the river and connects the village with the national park’s main entrance. It’s more silver-gray than golden today, though. We drive into the west, where the sun is setting behind a gauzy veil at the edge of the earth.
Within a few meters, we locate our “headquarters” for the next two days. The Palafito Cucao Hostel is a black shingle-clad “green” heaven. We’re expected to remove our shoes at the entrance and don a pair of pigskin-soled wool slippers. I always thought those were just for tourist show, since you can skate on a lot more than ice on many Chilote floors. These are undeniably spotless, however. Though still cold in September.
Our beautiful wooden box of a room looks like a nature refuge imported from a forest glen. Every surface is buffed to an opaque glow, but never painted, waxed, or varnished. Raw sheep’s-wool blankets and throws cover the bed. Furnishings like abalone-shell soap dishes and branches for towel bars surprise us. The absence of a TV doesn’t.
We’re threatened not to flush the TP. (Talk about out of your comfort zone!) I try to remember to comply, but I’m tempted to wonder how it could possibly be more ecological to cart to a landfill or burn?
Just before dark…
we take a quick stroll on the boardwalk terrace. Rain-beaded white callas grow in thickets along the woven fences, like Easter lilies surviving and thriving outside the greenhouse. We smile at the rustic jacuzzi in a wooden barrel and regret we didn’t book it. Too late now to heat it, but the contrast of sauna water and glacial air would have steamrolled us out of our comfort zone.
“Real change is difficult at the beginning, but gorgeous at the end… You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone; change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” ―Roy T. Bennett
We make our own supper and enjoy coffee, sandwiches, and donuts (not roscas!) at an indoor picnic table. Happy anniversary. How far we’ve traveled from our comfort zone tonight.
Both of us have spent our lives pushed and pulled and prodded out of our comfort zone. Whether we’ve changed the world, we ourselves have changed and grown.
And who knows what a difference that may make light years from here and millennia from now?